This weekend the UFC lands back in Japan in one of the most anticipated events for this year, UFC 144, the first time the promotion has visited the country since the merger of Pride Fighting Championships in 2007 and under the Zuffa ownership.
The last UFC event held in Japan was UFC 29: Defense of the Belts where the crowd of 1,414 saw Tito Ortiz crowned middleweight champion in December 2000 under previous owners SEG.
While many are hoping a repeat of the extravagance that we became accustomed to during the Pride years, this is a UFC show and they will continue utilising the formula, i.e. no pyrotechnic displays and definitely no change to the soccer kick or head stomps rules, that has made them a success so far.
In what is common in overseas events, we see a card that is stacked full of Japanese fighters, some more known than others such as Takanori Gomi and Yushin Okami; combined with UFC names such as Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson as well as a lightweight title fight.
For the first time in two years we see lightweight champion Frankie Edgar (14-1-1) fight someone other than Gray Maynard (UFC 125, UFC 136) or B.J Penn (UFC 112, UFC 118) in former WEC lightweight champion Benson (Ben) Henderson (15-2).
This fight is certain to be a barn-burner with both fighters as useful in the stand up as they are on the ground; both fighters hold brown belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and are almost toe to toe with the amount of knockout wins (Edgar 3, Henderson 2).
For the two well-rounded fighters, this could go either way. Both have defended titles successfully; however the past experience of fighting a different calibre of competition in the past couple of years may edge Henderson the victory.
One fighter to keep an eye on in this card is Riki Fukuda (17-5), who is showing in his second event since debuted with the promotion at UFC 127 in Sydney February 2011, losing in somewhat controversial circumstances to Canadian Nick Ring.
The fight was scored two rounds to Ring, and the third to Fukuda when the MMA community and president Dana White felt that Fukuda should have won, even giving the Japanese fighter his bonus money.
It will be interesting to see how Fukuda’s long layoff and recovery from a knee injury sustained from a car accident will affect the shoot wrestler against ex-WEC Light Heavyweight Champion Steve Cantwell (7-5), who is looking for his second win in the UFC promotion after suffering defeats in his last four fights.
For Cantwell this will be all or nothing to keep his place in the promotion.
For fight of the night honours there are two bouts that should be contenders; Mark Hunt (7-7) vs. Cheick Kongo (17-6-2) and Joe Lauzon (21-6) vs. Anthony Pettis (14-2).
Heavyweight fighter Mark Hunt is the lone fighter flying the Aussie flag in Japan after lightweight George Sotiropoulos was forced out of his bout with Takanori Gomi due to injury.
Hunt’s on again, off again form has consistently raised questions about his place in the promotion; however a win over the Frenchman Kongo will guarantee the veteran fighter a spot well into 2012.
Kongo is best known for coming back from a knockout to overcome Pat Barry in June 2011 and his tough chin may prove to be frustrating for Hunt. Expect this fight to be swinging from the bell until someone gets caught.
Submission specialist Joe Lauzon is looking to get another big-name win under his belt after defeating favourite Melvin Guillard in October 2011 with a rear naked choke submission.
Lauzon consistently plays the underdog and is quite happy to remain in that role, especially if it means his opponents are overlooking his ground game skills.
Competitor Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis has also experienced being the underdog, going into a WEC title bout with then champion Benson Henderson and landing a kick off the cage which not only enabled him to win the fight via decision but ensured that he will forever be included in highlight reels.
Within the UFC, Pettis has experienced a mixed transition from the WEC with a loss against Clay Guida in June 2011 and a win via split decision over Jeremy Stephens in October 2011.
This bout with Lauzon will play out extremely close; both fighters hold purple belts in BJJ, and have the same level of striking and takedown defense. Expect this to be an up and down affair, with each fighter looking for the chance to exploit a mistake and gain the win.